Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

Book Review: Angel of Darkness

Book Review: Angel of Darkness by Charles de Lint

Back in the early 1990s, Charles de Lint decided to publish some darker fantasy/horror books under the name Samuel M. Key, as some of the fans weren’t thrilled by him going in a horror direction.  By the 21st Century, it was decided Mr. de Lint’s reputation was such that it could handle the strain of these books being officially added to his main list.

Angel of Darkness

Chad Baker is a recording genius.  He’s also quite mad, and has decided to create the perfect sound…of pain.  To this end, he’s been secretly torturing and killing people, and tonight he’s got the final piece.   He mixes the music and it all goes horribly right.

Ex-cop Jack Keller has been looking for a young runaway, and has finally tracked her to Chad Baker’s door.  It is far, far too late and he catches a glimpse of an angel, beautiful and terrifying.

Soon, people begin dying in horrific ways, many of them the police officers who inspected the Baker crime scene.  The barriers between worlds have been pierced, and a vengeful angel lurks in the liminal place between sleep and death.

The alternate dimension that looks like post-apocalyptic Ottawa if the end of civilization was caused by a hate plague is effectively creepy at first,  but wears thin fast.  It veers into “trying too hard” territory.  I do like that people eventually start thinking logically about how to deal with a threat that only attacks in your sleep (or so they thought) and that these measures turn out to be the exact opposite of useful because of the true nature of the threat.

Trigger warning for rape, torture, and various kinds of abuse.   Several of the characters are quick to use obscene language, and there are some squicky sex scenes.

I don’t think this is one of Mr. de Lint’s better works; mostly for completists.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA)

It’s the first anniversary of my blog!  To celebrate, I thought it would be nice to update the very first review that appeared here.  http://www.skjam.com/2012/12/09/manga-review-shonen-jump-alpha/

Shonen Jump

Shounen Jump is still Japan’s number one best-selling manga anthology title.  Although the primary market is still middle-school through high school boys, people of all ages and body shapes enjoy these tales of friendship, struggle and victory.  Weekly Shonen Jump is the English language edition, which now has many of the series available online the same day they’re legally for sale in Japan.  (Due to a persistent piracy problem, scans of the Japanese version appear online a week early.)

Because of the change to same-day release, the name of the ezine was changed from Shonen Jump Alpha to Weekly Shonen Jump.  Those of you who live outside the U.S.A. will be happy to hear that  Viz (the publishers) have arranged for it to be legally available in most English-speaking countries, and they’re working on the rest of the world.

Now, let’s take a look at what’s currently running.

Weekly

One Piece:  Still Shonen Jump’s flagship title.  Young Luffy D. Monkey lives on a world that’s mostly water.  He decides he’s going to be the Pirate King, and sets out on a voyage to find the mysterious One Piece treasure.  Along the way he gathers a wacky crew and battles evil pirates and the dictatorial World Government.    Having captured the main baddie on Punk Hazard, the Straw Hat Pirates sail to Dressrosa (which looks like a cross between Spain and Toyland) to negotiate with his boss.  Unfortunately, Dressrosa turns out to be a lot more sinister than it looks, and while Luffy is distracted by a gladiatorial contest, the rest of the crew learns dark secrets.

Naruto:   Young Naruto Uzumaki, an outcast in his hidden ninja village, decides that he will one day become the Hokage, leader of the village.  A year later, and we are still on the final battle of the Ninja World War–I don’t think even a full day has gone by yet.  It does look like the fight may be winding down within the next year, as all the major players are in one place.

Bleach:  Ichigo Kurosaki, a young man who can see ghosts, finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the otherworldly Soul Reapers who help dead people reach the afterlife.  This one is officially on its final plot arc, with the creator having taken a hiatus to plot out the intricacies of the Vandenreich’s attempt to destroy the Soul Society.  Perhaps by this time next year a full day will have passed.

Toriko:  Toriko is a Food Hunter in a world where the more dangerous it is to acquire the food substance, the more delicious it is.  The attack by the evil food organization, along with the emergence of a new even more evil organization, has resulted in a disruption of the ecosystem, leading to mass starvation.  The other heroes have a plan to restore the world that used to be known as Earth, but  they’ll need Toriko to help, and he’s kind of out of it.

Nisekoi:  False love is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge have to pretend to be dating to end a feud between their respective clans.  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood promise to a girl whose name and face he cannot remember, and there are several girls it could be, including Chitoge.  This very formula romantic comedy continues to play the variations on its central theme.  The main plot development has been the introduction of one character’s little sister, who thinks Raku is an enemy of all women, especially her older sister, and doesn’t realize Raku’s also the mysterious protector she has a crush on.

World Trigger:  Earth is being invaded by creatures called Neighbors from an adjacent dimension.  The secretive agency Border has been formed to fight them.  Osamu Mikumo, a wimpy but goodhearted Border trainee, finds out that new classmate Kuga Yuuma is himself a Neighbor who is on Earth illegally to fulfill the wishes of his late father.  It turns out the Neighbor world political situation is far more complicated than most Earthlings knew.  Currently, our two young men and Chika, a girl whose brother went missing in the Neighbor world, are trying to become full-fledged Border agents.  This series started off very weak, but has greatly improved as it found a direction.

Dragonball Z:  Yes, the one about the mighty Son Goku finding out he’s actually an alien and having to battle against increasingly strong threats to humanity.  This is a rerun, but has been colorized and spiffed up a bit for new readers.  I actually preferred the first half of the Dragonball series, but for those who grew up on Z, this is a nostalgia blast.

Monthly

Seraph of the End:   A mysterious “virus” kills 90% of the adults on Earth.   Many of the children are abducted underground by vampires to protect/feed on them.  On the surface, the remaining humans are hunted by monsters, and the Demon Army has to use dangerous possessed weapons to battle them.   Our protagonist was a bitter orphan even before the series began, only bonding with the rest of the orphanage kids moments before the caretakers died of disease, and then the rest of the orphans were murdered in an attempt to escape the vampires.  So he’s understandably skeptical of the need for friendship to become a functional member of the Demon Army.  He’s kind of a prick, honestly.

Blue Exorcist:  Young delinquent Rin Okumura discovers that he is in fact the son of Satan and thus half-demon.   Rebellious by nature, he refuses to join his father’s forces and instead enrolls in a school for exorcists to battle the forces of evil.   Currently, one of the exorcism students has been kidnapped with the assistance of another student who it appears was a spy for the Illuminati all along.  Time for a rescue mission!

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  Yuma Tsukumo is, in theory, a huge fan of the card game Duel Monsters, despite not knowing anything about the rules or customs of it.  He acquires a not-so-imaginary friend nicknamed Astral who has lost its memories but helps Yuma win duels.  Right now in the manga, it turns out that destroying the Astral World will destroy the human world as well, turning the villains into omnicidal maniacs.  Worse, Astral’s original purpose in coming to Earth was to destroy the human world to protect the Astral one….

One Punch Man:  Saitama, an unemployed salaryman, was bored with his life, and decided to become a superhero.  After training so fanatically that his hair fell out, Saitama became a powerful superhero who can defeat any enemy with one punch.   Which again leaves him feeling kind of empty, since there’s no challenge in that.   Now he searches for meaning in his life, while monsters and villains need punching.  This superhero parody is surprisingly deep for its simple premise, and has had some of the best action scenes in manga.  Currently, Saitama’s best buddy, cyborg Genos, is invited to a meeting of the top heroes and Saitama tags along.

If you like shounen action manga, Shonen Jump Weekly is good value for money.

 

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Shonen

Let’s start with something hefty, shall we?  Shounen Jump is the #1 manga anthology magazine in Japan, selling in the millions of copies.  Its emphasis on the themes of “friendship, struggle, victory: have made it a favorite of both its primary demographic of teenage boys (“shounen”) and the general public.  The series featured inside often get animated adaptations, which feed back to the popularity of the magazine.

Thus it was that Viz comics, , which imports manga to the North American audience, had a magazine called “Shonen Jump” which brought monthly installments of some of the most popular series to Western readers.  But the print magazine market is such that that approach wasn’t working as well as the company would like, so they’ve switched to an online magazine format instead, “Shonen Jump Alpha.”

Alpha comes out weekly at http:shonenjump.viz.com with chapters two weeks later than the Japanese print edition.  As of January 21st, they’ll be speeding it up to same-day release.  There are at present six weekly features licensed, and several monthly offerings; depending on the scheduling and if one of the regulars is having a skip week, this can make for a thin issue or a very large one.

Weekly Features

One Piece: In many ways the flagship title of SJA.  A boy named Luffy decides he’s going to become the pirate king.  He sets off on his adventure and gains a crew of wacky characters to assist him while fighting evil pirates, monsters, and the corrupt government. Cartoony art, engaging characters and a good variety of emotional tones have made this a standout series.  At present, the crew has answered a distress call from the supposedly deserted island of Punk Hazard, site of a chemical weapons disaster some years before.  The island is of course not nearly as deserted as it would appear.

Naruto: Orphaned ninja Naruto, despised and mistreated by his fellow villagers, decides that he’s going to become the Hokage, the chief of his village.  He is both aided and hampered in this quest by the fact that his body is the prison for the legendary Nine-Tailed Fox, a powerful spirit that attacked the village long ago.  The characters are more superhero than ninja per se, but this series can be a lot of fun  Presently, it looks like the Great Ninja War is finally winding down, with Naruto and his allies confronting the real (for sure this time!) mastermind behind everything.

Bleach: Ichigo Kurosaki, a boy who sees ghosts, suddenly finds himself thrust into the battles of the Shinigami (“reapers”) whose job is to assist the flow of spirits to the afterlife, and battle spirits that have lost their way and become “Hollows.”  As time goes by, more and more factions are introduced, and Ichigo unlocks more and more ultimate potential, in addition to learning things about his rather unusual heritage.  Not as good as the above two.  The current arc is supposedly the last, with a group called the Vandenreich attempting to destroy the Soul Society (the primary afterlife) altogether.  Naturally, it turns out that Ichigo has a surprising connection to them…

Toriko:  The adventures of a superhuman gourmand named Toriko on a world where the more dangerous/difficult to get a food ingredient is, the more tasty it is.  He partners with an aspiring chef named Komatsu to track down the rarest and most delicious of creatures.  This is an audience participation manga, with readers sending in their ideas for cool new foodstuffs.  It can be fun, though I am not as affected by the munchies as some other readers by it.  Presently, the characters are involved with a cooking tournament, which with any luck will be interrupted by an evil food company invasion.

Nisekoi: “False love” is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge, scions of feuding gangster clans, are pressured into pretending to date to calm the squabbles.  Only problem is that they can’t stand each other!  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood marriage promise to a girl whose name and face he doesn’t remember.  At least three girls turn out to carry keys that could fit his lock (Freudian!)  This series is generic romantic comedy done right.  Yes, all the elements are out of the standard playbook, but the writer does them so well!  Currently, Chitoge has finally realized that she’s beginning to have genuine affection for Raku…but what does that mean for their fake relationship?

Cross Manage:  Former soccer star Sakurai is adrift in life after leg injuries sideline him.  That is until he meets the ditzy but very earnest Toyoguchi, whose struggling lacrosse team desperately needs a good manager.  This is a gender flip of the usual Shounen Jump sports story, in which a boy’s team has a cute female manager.  Unfortunately, the story so far has spent less time developing the team’s personalities and play styles than on Sakurai’s deep manpain.  This may explain why the series has been struggling in the ratings in the parent magazine, and looks ripe for an early cancellation.  Which is a pity, because there’s a lot of potential here.  Currently, the team is trying to get up to minimum competency to enter a spring tournament.

 

Monthlies

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers that his father is Satan, making him part demon and a danger to everyone around him.  Turns out Rin has inherited his father’s rebellious nature, and chooses to join exorcist school so he can learn to battle against his father’s evil plans and save humanity.  But his heritage also makes him a target, so there’s always trouble brewing.  Despite the subject matter, this series often comes off as more juvenile than scary.  Right now, someone or something is opening multiple Hellgates that can’t be closed by normal exorcists.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan:  Rikuo Nura is one-quarter yokai, (Japanese spirit monsters) so can access his superhuman abilities only for a limited amount of time each day.  Which is a real problem when he’s the heir to the yokai clan leader.This series was in Shonen Jump until earlier this year, but doing very poorly.  Since it was on its final battle arc already, the series was moved to a monthly magazine so the creator could really cut loose and do it up properly without having to worry about the ratings poll.

Rurouni Kenshin -Restoration-:  A distillation of the popular series about an assassin turned technical pacifist during the Meiji Restoration period.  It’s kind of a tie-in to the recnt live-action adaptation.  Think of it like a “Best HIts collection, or an alternate universe retelling.  You can tell that Watsuki is having a ball drawing these characters again, but Kaoru comes across as even more useless in this version.  Currently they’re building up to a fight with the hypnotic gaze fighter.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  In the far future, Yuma Tsukuno is a huge fan of the Duel Monsters children’s card game…in the abstract, but has no idea how to actually play it.  when he gains a not-so-imaginary friend named Astral, Yuma starts improving, and soon finds himself battling evil plots to misuse the cards.  Yeah.  This latest installment of the Yu-Gi-OH! franchise continues most of the trends that have annoyed non-fans in the past, including substituting expensive overpowered cards for actual skill as the sign of a strong player.  (And despite our hero being supposedly a huge fan of the game, not recognizing half the cards or basic strategies he’s up against.)  How I miss plotlines that have almost nothing to do with the game.  Just at the moment, the good guys are trying to collect all the Numbers cards, a goal shared by the villains but for opposite reasons.

 

Overall:

An excellent value for money, provided that you are a big fan of the general shounen manga style of storytelling.  There are some lesser parts, but the variety is overall strong.  More new series are scheduled to start soon, so keep an eye out if the current titles aren’t enough to excite you.

 

SKJAM!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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